Choosing the Best Men's Rock Climbing Shoe

Article By:
Matt Bento
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Thursday

As a first time buyer, purchasing climbing shoes can be a daunting task. Even to a veteran, the prospect can be prohibitive. Unlike your street shoes, an approximate sizing won't be good enough. Virtually every climbing shoe has a unique shape and sizing system. The task is to find a shoe that fits your foot, and then size it appropriately for the type of climbing you're going to be doing. Below we offer information you can use to narrow the list of shoes you are choosing from. If you want more description of what shoes you should be picking from, see our Climbing Shoes Review.

Styles of Climbing Shoes


What Type of Climbing Will You Be Doing?
Do you live in Florida, and anticipate only using these shoes in the gym for the foreseeable future? Are you moving into Camp 4 for the summer and plan to live off Chef Boyardee and Coors Lite so you can climb full-time? You want shoes for the type (or types) of climbing you're going to be doing, and you want them to be sized appropriately.

Bouldering and Sport Climbing


La Sportiva Futura climbing shoe
As a good rule of thumb, the steeper the climbing gets, the more important it is to have a downturned, performance fit shoe like the La Sportiva Skawma, La Sportiva Genius, Scarpa Instinct VS or Evolv Shaman. The models feature a design which directs more power through the toe.

Appropriate sizing for steep, hard climbing varies from shoe to shoe. In order to perform at a very high level, a shoe will be uncomfortable to wear for more than a pitch or two. Our recommendation is to size your shoes appropriately to stay psyched. If all you're focused on is pushing your grade, a tight fitting, aggressively shaped shoe will work for you. If your comfort is critical to enjoying your experience while on the rock, we'd recommend you size your shoes accordingly, and look for a shoe with a flat shape. Specialized shoes in this category tend to be on the upper end of the price range.

Trad and Crack Climbing


La Sportiva TC Pro climbing shoe
Traditional climbing can involve some techniques, and the duration of the climbs are equally variable. Typically, for crack climbs, you will want a shoe that allows the toes to lay slightly flatter to fit into the crack, like the FiveTen Quantum, Five Ten Moccasym or Scarpa Vapor V. For long multi-pitch routes, you'll want a flatter, looser fitting shoe like the La Sportiva TC Pro. Shoes with a stiffer sole will allow you to stand on edges even when sized larger for comfort. They will also help prevent foot fatigue on longer days. Know that many shoes stretch significantly once worn-in. Unlined uppers are comfortable, but stretch more, and may leave you with a shoe that doesn't perform as well as you would like.

Gym Climbing and Starting Out


La Sportiva Tarantula
There are probably several schools of thought regarding how to choose your first pair of climbing shoes. Our recommendation is to do your homework — and this buyer's guide is a great place to start! Know what your local crags offer, or if you'll primarily be climbing in a gym. This will help you look for a shoe that is appropriate for what you're planning to do. Often, new climbers get put off by uncomfortable shoes; this is unnecessary.

Look for a solid all-arounder; something like the Scarpa Vapor V or Evolv Defy are versatile enough to let you explore various types of climbing (check out the climbing shoe reviews for ideas). Often, it is wise for a new climber to purchase inexpensive shoes because bad footwork will wear them out quickly. The La Sportiva Tarantula or Evolv Defy Black are great options. By the time you need a replacement, you may have learned something and will be ready to upgrade to a pricier, higher performance shoe.

Typically, inexpensive, entry-level shoes won't climb as well — but this is not a hard and fast rule. If you find the right shoe, forking out a little extra cash is worth it to have something that you can grow with, and that won't hold you back. Irrespective of the price, the shoe needs to be comfortable. Not grandma's slippers comfortable, but something you can easily tolerate wearing for a while.

For gym climbing, get whatever suits your climbing ambitions. We often size tight and aggressive for steep routes and bouldering and maintain a flatter, looser fit if you're new to climbing, cruising, or just getting some exercise.

Our feet took a real beating testing climbing shoes on hundreds of feet of crack.
Our feet took a real beating testing climbing shoes on hundreds of feet of crack.

Fit Considerations



Tightness


There is a lot of subjective information out there regarding how you should size your shoes. For sport climbing and bouldering, there is a pretty strong correlation between the difficulty of the climb and your shoe size: as the number grade of the climb increases, the number of your shoe size decreases correspondingly. Shoes like the Scarpa Instinct, Butora Acro and La Sportiva Genius have a particularly tight feel and perform better because of that snug fit. However, there is a limit to an increase in tightness increasing performance. If your feet hurt so much that you don't want to, or can't climb, you've gone too far. Tight shoes also work for sport climbs and bouldering because you tend not to be on the rock for very long.

On multi-pitch climbs, whether sport or trad, you'll want to size your shoes more loosely. Especially for trad climbing, having a flatter-toed shoe will benefit you when climbing cracks. You can compensate for a slightly larger size by choosing a shoe with a stiffer sole. Even on longer multi-pitch sport climbs, a less aggressive shape (less downturned, lower asymmetry) will keep your feet from getting thrashed, with a relatively minimal diminishment in performance.

Again, doing some research will go a long way for you. Before you buy, decide what type of climbing you'll mostly be doing with the shoe, try on several and size them accordingly. A few things to consider: unlined shoes stretch more over the lifetime of the shoe, and can lose performance. Half sizes matter, particularly in climbing shoes. A slightly larger shoe won't impact your climbing very much at all and can make a world of difference regarding comfort.

Aggressive Shape


Downturned toes like the La Sportiva Genius or Evovl Shaman are everywhere these days. The more down-turned a shoe, the more your toes bunch up in the front. Sizing down-turned shoes loosely will mean that you have extra material on top of your foot where your arched toes should be. When you climb in an oversized shoe, that excess material can bunch up, both getting in the way and making the shoe less comfortable. If you're in the market for down-turned shoes, remember to keep them snug. That doesn't mean they have to hurt, but they should be tight enough to perform for you.

A low volume shoe like the Vapor V on the left generally performs better in cracks. I f crack climbing isn't your thing and your foot is on the narrow side  the Tarifa (right) provides a glove-like fit.
A low volume shoe like the Vapor V on the left generally performs better in cracks. I f crack climbing isn't your thing and your foot is on the narrow side, the Tarifa (right) provides a glove-like fit.

Stretch


The shoe that you take out of the box the first day you climb with it will not be the same after wearing it for a while. All shoes stretch, some more than others, so it is important to size your shoes to account for how they will feel after wearing in.

Leather shoes, like the La Sportiva Skwama or La Sportiva TC Pro, stretch more than synthetic shoes, so take that into account when making a purchase. However, leather shoes that are lined stretch very little but will mold themselves to your feet to some extent. How much do you size leather shoes down to accommodate for stretch? That depends a lot on the brand and model, and there will be a little trial and error here. In general, to get the right fit from your unlined leather shoe, size them a little tighter, and expect them to be mildly uncomfortable, with the discomfort decreasing as they wear in. The result should produce a comfortable shoe. Synthetic shoes don't stretch out much at all, so make sure they are fairly true to size when you buy.

Gathering a little information on the shoe you are going to wilbuy will help you make this decision. What does the manufacturer say about the shoe? What materials were used to construct the shoe? What is the design of the shoe? For example, a lot of shoes feature rubber on top of the toe for hooking, which prevents the shoe from stretching as much. These are all proper questions to ask and will help guarantee you stay stoked with your decision.

The author "working" late into the evening. Stiffer shoes like the Butora Acro shown here are fantastic for vertical edging.
The author "working" late into the evening. Stiffer shoes like the Butora Acro shown here are fantastic for vertical edging.

Brand and Sizing


Sizing is the biggest crux when purchasing climbing shoes, especially if shopping online.Go out and try on various brands and sizes before you buy, if you can. Evolv, FiveTen, and Butora run small, now making it possible to size your rock shoes the same as your street shoes. La Sportiva and Scarpa are very consistent but require a little testing to learn what their sizing means. For us, it means we buy these European brands one size to one and a half size down from our street shoe size. We had to size the long, narrow Tenaya shoes two full sizes down from our streets shoes size before our toes were snug against the front of the shoe.

Laces, Velcro, and Slipper


There are three main types of tightening system: Velcro strap(s), lace-ups, and slippers (usually elastic). Lace-up shoes are the most adjustable, and typically provide the most uniform, customizable fit for your rock shoes. All those strings make them a little slower to put on and take off. Because of this, we tend to choose lace-ups as all-around/multi-pitch shoes, where we put them on at the start of the climb and take them off at the end. Velcro shoes go on and off easier, and some tighten almost as well as lace-ups. For sport, bouldering, or gym climbing, Velcro shoes are exceptional because of the number of transitions between street shoes and rock shoes that you make in a day. They work well on multi-pitch days too, if you want to pop the velcro for a little relief at the belay. Slippers are usually the most sensitive and comfortable shoes out there. They are normally unlined, which means they stretch out more. This makes them more comfortable but also decreases their performance. They are very easy to take off and make great gym or bouldering shoes.

Laces wear out, get torn up by cracks, and get turned into rappel anchors (don't do that). Just be ready to replace them when they start to look worked. Velcro will get mucked up if you leave it open when you're storing the shoes. Keeping the velcro closed when you're not using your shoes will also help maintain the shape of the shoe longer. Tip: your friend's toothbrush (or the one you use to clean holds) can be used to brush out the velcro if it's starting to look gummy.

Rubber Stickiness


The difference in rubber preference stratifies opinion more than any other aspect of climbing. As a rule, rubber that is stickier is usually softer and less durable, and less sticky rubber is typically harder and more durable. Really soft rubber that is ultra-sticky will wear out fast. It also gets pocked or fish-scaled quickly and tends to slide off edges. Harder rubber holds an edge longer but doesn't function as well when you paste your foot on the rock. Consequently, we tend to use the different rubber types for various applications. Softer rubber for high-performance sport and bouldering shoes will typically work better for everything other than steep edges. When just starting out as a climber, or if you're looking for an all day shoe, harder, more durable rubber will work better.

History


Today, it's hard to imagine rock climbing without cranking down a tight pair of high performance sticky rubber-soled climbing shoes. Rarely do we think of the incredible technological improvements that have gone into climbing footwear over the last one hundred years. The different shapes, the different fits, and most of all, the different rubbers all have long histories in and of themselves. Let's take a look back at the first iterations of the climbing shoe in Europe.

In the late 19th century, rock climbing began to develop as a form of practice for the climbing required to arrive on the summits of mountains. The terrain being tackled in these early years was relatively easy by today's standards. However, to fully understand the difficulty we must examine the context in which these climbs were being done and it is most important to look to the footwear and gear being used by these early climbers. As these men (and a few women) became more serious in their pursuit to summit magnificent mountains, they took to their local boulders and cliffs to practice their skills. These early climbers began scrambling on the local cliffs in the same footwear they would use in the mountains. Often this was a form of hob-nailed boot, a leather-soled, ankle high boot with metal studs pounded through the soles.

Well into the early 20th century, these hob-nail boots were the standard for many European climbers. In some regions, climbers began to explore a softer soled canvas shoe for climbing, but the significant improvements came out of Europe in the 1930s. During the 20s and 30s, the French mountaineering club were meeting to 'practice climb' on the boulders outside of Paris to prepare for their trips to the mountains. By 1935 one particular Frenchman, Pierre Allain, was becoming more and more interested in not just climbing on these boulders as practice, but climbing for the pure challenge of it.

Allain was at the forefront of the early climbing development taking place in the famous Fontainebleau forest near Paris. Allain recognized that a new style of shoe was needed to improve one's footwork while on the rock, so he began developing a smooth-rubber soled shoe intended specifically for climbing on rocks. This was perhaps the first climbing specific piece of footwear created. The shoe looks very similar to a modern climbing shoe but lacks the 'sticky rubber' and instead has a traditional hard rubber sole that just requires any lug pattern.

In 1935 another mountaineer and climber, the Italian Vitale Bramani, found a need for better mountain footwear after six of his friends lost their lives in the Italian Alps. Bramani teamed with Leopoldo Pirelli of Pirelli Tires to create Vibram soles, the first rubber lug soled boots commercially available. These were game changing. Vibram soled boots became the standard for climbing and mountain endeavors for the next 25 years or more and carried climbers for the first time to the summits of many impressive high altitude peaks, including K2.

As climbers continued to push the limits in the mountains and at their local climbing areas, many people experimented with different shoe styles. In the 1940's, Joe Brown, an Englishman, began to experiment with climbing in plimsolls, a canvas topped, rubber soled shoe, similar to today's Keds. In these shoes, he established many famous routes across the Peak district of England.

By 1948, Pierre Allain had improved his original smooth-rubber soled shoe design, and in 1950 he marketed them commercially as PA's. These shoes were the first climbing particular shoes on the market, a shoe specifically for rock climbing and not intended as a mountaineering boot that would climb well. These shoes were used on many legendary climbs in the Alps, including the first ascent of the north face of the Dru. Still, in his quest to push the limits of difficulty, Allain was constrained by his footwear until he met Eduard Bourdenneau.

Eduard Bourdenneau was an expert shoe maker who teamed with Pierre Allain in 1950 to create the iconic climbing shoe, the EB. EB's utilized a softer rubber than its predecessor, the PA. By the late 60s, the flagship shoe, the Super Gratton, was the climbing shoe of choice around the world. It was in this climbing shoe that free climbing began to press into substantially more challenging terrain; 5.11, 5.12 and even 5.13 grades were established across the globe as a direct result of this legendary shoe.

Meanwhile, in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, climbers were using various shoes to establish impressive rock climbs and massive big walls in Yosemite Valley. Royal Robbins pioneered and marketed a boot-like climbing shoe that was worn and loved by many in the US during the pre-EB era (the EBs were not yet available in the US). However, once EBs began surfacing in the states, they quickly became a mandatory item for free climbing.

So through the 70s, EBs reigned supreme. And amazingly, it wasn't until 1980 that a new shoe hit the markets and took the climbing world by storm. Spanish climbers Jesus Garcia Lopez and Miguel Angel Garcia Gallego, the Gallego Brothers, were the first to work with manufacturers to develop a rubber specifically for rock climbing. These soles were used on a shoe marketed by Boreal, The Fire, and is considered to be the birth of 'sticky rubber,' a rubber that would stick to the rock yet maintain durability and abrasion resistance like nothing used before. Together in 1981 the Gallego Brothers arrived in Yosemite Valley and established the first non-American route on El Capitan, "Mediterraneo," a challenging route even by today's standards and one that is seldom repeated.

On this trip, they met and shared the Boreal Fire with Valley locals. John Bachar tested them on the classic Midnight Lightning and was amazed that a shoe could be that much better than the current gold standard, the EB. By spring of 1983, Bachar had teamed with Boreal and the Gallegos to import 265 pairs, according to Bachar, to be sold at the Yosemite Mountain Shop; within the first two hours of the store opening, and on the first day of sales, they had sold every pair.

With the introduction of the Fire in the early 1980s, climbing quickly progressed leaps and bounds. Many active climbers recall their climbing immediately jumping a full grade just by changing shoes. From that moment forward climbers everywhere required their shoes to have the new sticky rubber. Over the next several years many climbing shoe companies pushed shoe design to new levels of performance. Boreal, La Sportiva, and Five Ten were some of the big names developing new and cutting edge shoes. But it's thanks to the Boreal Fires that climbing shoes moved in a whole new direction and athletes could continue to challenge new and impossible routes around the world.

Matt Bento
About the Author
Matt Bento grew up in North Carolina. He discovered rock climbing at the late age of 22, and in a misguided quest to make up for lost time, proceeded to drive around America in giant circles, while living in his vehicle and visiting many world class climbing destinations. 10 years, 25 jobs, and countless splitter cracks later, he’s still at it, mostly dividing his time between the Tuolumne Meadows and Bishop California. He loves fine cheeses, long runs in through the woods, and going on adventures with his friends.

 
 

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